Cambridge is arguably the most beautiful university in the world, blessed as it is with the Backs, the meadows that stretch down behind the colleges towards the Cam river and beyond. But there is also much to see in the college gardens, which are more accessible than they used to be. A word of warning though: double-check college websites before any visit, as closures can be abrupt.
Clare College and its celebrated fellows' garden, for example, is closed to visitors "for the foreseeable future" because of building works. But with a little forward planning, gardeners still have the opportunity to see more of the college gardens than was ever previously possible.
The famed lime avenue (above) was first planted in 1671 and has been replanted twice since, the last time in 1949. University rivals suggest that the trees are too close together – and perhaps they are, but the effect is undeniably enchanting.
Flanking rows of flowering cherry trees were added in 1929, to the consternation of some fellows (tutors) who felt these were rather “suburban”. Thousands of narcissi have been planted between the limes and the cherries, making for a fine spring show, though the avenue is arguably at its best in autumn, as the lime leaves turn golden and carpet the path. In all, Trinity’s gardens and parkland extend for 36 acres.
St John’s College
The last of the three great colleges along the Backs, St John’s boasts the most spectacular herbaceous border in Cambridge, recently replanted. It is to be found along the 14 bays and central arch that form the frontage of 19th-century New Court. The two 30m borders on either side of the arch are mirror images of each other. High colour is the theme, with spectacular splashes of orange kniphofia, yellow achillea, red geums and purple salvia. The rationale? The head gardener says he wants the border to be “highly visible from Trinity College”.
Since 1988 the ancient gardens and groves of Jesus College have had a contemporary spin, with annual sculpture shows by leading artists including Antony Gormley and Richard Long. Some works are permanent, including Barry Flanagan’s San Marco Horse, which is dramatically positioned in the middle of the grass lawn in First Court.
Murray Edwards College
Several of the modern colleges, including Churchill and Fitzwilliam, have created notable gardens around a modernist core. Murray Edwards (left) – “the spaceship” – is noteworthy for the sheer vivacity of its gardening (and of its garden staff). Salvias are an enthusiasm of the head gardener while the “magic roundabout” at the college entrance boasts huge specimens of the banana, Musa basjoo.
Another riverside college, but with no space for views across meadows. What Queens’ does have is its atmospheric Grove, planted on land across the river from the main college. Queens’ Grove contains a range of mature trees, including beech, oak and chestnut, as well as a fine spring display of aconites, tulips and other bulbs. But its glory is a pair of massive elm trees which, at more than 44m, are the tallest in Britain. They help create a wonderfully sequestered air in this untouristed realm.
From the railway station, Peterhouse is the first college one passes, and it is easy to go straight past. But the gardens of this oldest Cambridge college (founded 1284), hidden away behind the bulky Fitzwilliam Museum, are worth a detour. The jewel is the so-called deer park, which contains no deer but boasts one of the finest displays of bulbs and spring blossom in the city. Also not to be missed is the display around the porter’s lodge, nicknamed “Gerald’s Bower” because it is the handiwork of the head porter.
A modern college, built in 1980, that is distinguished not by its architecture but by 12 acres of gardens that form a rectangle behind the college. At the heart is an old arts and crafts house and an artificial lake, while ranged against the edges of the space are the back gardens of houses that have been gradually acquired by the college. It was decided to retain the boundaries of these gardens, so one has a pleasing sensation of “trespassing”.
The college founded in 1441 by Henry VI (left) is blessed with the finest building in Cambridge, medieval King’s Chapel, with unmatched views towards it across the pasture known as Scholar’s Piece. This magnificent building is balanced on each side by the horizontals of the neoclassical Gibbs Building to the right, and Clare College on the left. The scene is offset by a “herd” of grazing Suffolk cattle, placed there solely for decorative purposes (the herd currently numbers just two). Don’t miss the long “hot” border along the Clare College boundary, with soaring echiums in high summer.
The head gardener at this modern college is a plant fanatic and it shows in every inch. His pride and joy is a winter garden tucked around the side of the buildings, but there is interest across the place and a wide range of new or unusual plants among tightly clipped topiary pieces.
There is a good case for this college to be rated the most horticulturally impressive in Cambridge. The best moment is around the Old Library, where surging, colourful borders complement the rich red brick of the Elizabethan building. The excitement continues around Latham Lawn, where students lounge and read.
Cambridge College Gardens by Tim Richardson (White Lion, £40). Buy now for £35 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514